Tom Wilson was Zappa’s main connection to the major record labels and whenever he was in town they spent a lot of time together, plotting and hatching schemes. Zappa didn’t see himself as just a recording artist, he had all kinds of plans and Wilson was interested to hear them. In June 1966 he signed Burt Ward to MGM, the actor who played Robin the ‘Boy Wonder’ in ABC’s successful Batman TV series. Zappa wrote ‘Boy Wonder I Love You’ and later that month, with Zappa conducting and Wilson producing, they spent two days at TT&G laying down half a dozen tracks; but the single, with Zappa’s song on the A-side, went nowhere.
Most of Frank’s collaborations were with singer Ray Collins. Born in 1936 and raised in Pomona, Ray grew up to a radio soundtrack of pop and Doo Wop—Los Angeles had some of the best DJs in the coutry—as well as the Mexican-American music of East Los Angeles. He sang high falsetto on ‘I Remember Linda’ by Little Julian Herrera and the Tigers, released in 1957 on Art Laboe’s Starla label. (The Art Laboe Show on KPOP was the number one radio show in 1956.) It was good exposure, but just as ‘I Remember Linda’ was moving up the local charts, Little Julian—who was only 17 or 18—was arrested for statutory rape. The record died and Herrera’s career was destroyed.
One night in 1962 Ray Collins was drinking in a bar called The Sportsman in Pomona when a four-piece band came in and set up; the management had hired Frank’s group…Collins: ‘I heard him playing R&B stuff, which I though was pretty bizarre, because they were playing pretty obscure things…so I eventually asked Frank if I could sing, and he said, “Yeah, great!” And so I got up and sang “Work With Me Annie” and some other R&B ballad things.
Afterwards they talked about R&B and songwriting. Collins: ‘I told him I had an idea for a song. “How’s Your Bird?” was an expression that Steve Allen used to use on his TV show.’ Frank thought it was a great idea and a few days later he called Ray to say: ‘I wrote it. Let’s record it!’
Note the excellent use of snorks*.
*The snorting grunts (‘snorks’) were provided by Dick Barber, a friend of Bobby Zappa’s from Claremont High (he later worked as a road manager for Zappa from 1968 to 1975). Dick was very good on snorks: a pig grunt sound characteristic of many of Zappa’s recordings. (The name itself came from a comic book.)
The name of this lovely noise only came from a comic book if they were named so a decade-plus after “How’s Your Bird” was recorded. The “Snorks” comic book first appeared in 1974.
Zappa and Beefheart got into some very esoteric collaboration while on tour, resulting in such songs as ‘Debra Kadabra’, which opens Bongo Fury and is a reference to an ill-timed trumpet line in Chano Ureta’s 1961 Mexican sci-fi movie The Braniac. Zappa: ‘Oh God, it’s one of the worst movies ever made; not only is the monster cheap, he’s got a rubber mask that you can see over the collar of the guy’s jacket and rubber gloves that don’t quite match up with the sleeves of his sport coat. When the monster appears there’s this trumpet lick that isn’t scary. It’s not even out of tune, it’s just exactly the wrong thing to put there, it doesn’t scare you…That’s what the song is about and when you hear in the background DA-DA-DA-DA-DAHH, that’s making fun of that stupid trumpet line that’s in that movie.’
When you read Barry Miles’ Zappa: A Biography—this will be at least my third time reading the book—there are places therein where you will find yourself saying exactly that. Because the man does tend to do a bit of judging Zappa from time to time. It is only occasionally, so when it occurs, you’re kind of like, hey, where in hell did that come from?
The idea that Frank’s Catholic upbringing was responsible for his apparent fixation on sex and use of taboo words was often proposed by interviewers, with predictable results: ‘The words I use on-stage are designed for directness of communication rather than as a protest against my Catholic upbringing. If you’re gonna talk to somebody, it might as well be in a language they understand.’ However, this does not explain why a man in his forties should still want to sing about groupies, blow jobs, underwear, sex appliances and anal sex. He especially rejected any suggestion that there might be psychological factors at work, that is, factors beyond his conscious control, and had a tremendous aversion to psychologists and psychiatrists.
What an odd criticism sitting in the middle of a biography of Frank Zappa.
So. Generally, I adore the book I’m excerpting here. But. Sometimes I wonder if Mills even likes his subject.
Barry. He wrote “Bobby Brown Goes Down” and “Jazz Discharge Party Hats” because he thought they were funny. K?
Just a few thoughts while I am running along to the next desperate opportunity to make some money and stave off financial catastrophe:
Where were the massive headlines the two times the federal district courts upheld the Obama health care bill and the 12 times the courts refused to consider a challenge to the law? Why are the headlines so prominent when the one corrupted GOOP appointee rules for the GOOP? The stupidity of journalists will one day mean the downfall of the Republic. Betcha.
And when is some journalist going to ask how it is, that if force-placed government insurance is so unconstitutional, the government has been requiring homeowers who live in flood plains to buy flood insurance since at least 1993?
And on an entirely different subject: It does not surprise me… and I am somewhat pleased… to note that Wiki leaks revealed more detail on the Pope’s refusal to prosecute pedophiles in the Irish priesthood. I am also mildly amused by the Sister of St. Joe who embezzled $850,000 from a school in Connecticut. I probably would have liked her.
And lest you think that I am merely a Catholic hater, I just want to make it clear that among organized religions I regard the Catholic Church as only slightly more insidious than American evangelicals, and not nearly as vicious or evil as the Moslem crowd that surfaces daily in places like Pakistan and Iran and Afghanistan.
Recently the Pakistanis decided to kill a Christian woman for being… Christian. Somehow she breached the blasphemy laws. It doesn’t matter to me or them how she blasphemed. I think the whole idea of Blasphemy, a thought crime, is vicious and barbaric. They think it is sublime.
In the meantime, the Iranians have a stoning planned for a woman who may have been looked at with lust by some ignorant farmer. The Taliban routinely brutalize and mutilate women for sport.
All these guys are operating someplace near where the Catholics were working 100 years ago or so. A dark age dominated by twisted souls empowered by a powerful and delusional male leadership. The scary part is they have power and it is growing.
According to Barry Miles’ Zappa: A Biography, Frank Zappa’s first attempt at moving out of his parents’ house was a failure. A project to write a movie score had fallen through. He was broke.
In desperation he called his mother and told her he was starving. She despatched (sic) [his younger brother] Bobby on the bus to Los Angeles with a bag of toiletries, food, clean clothes and $50—enough to last for some time. However, not long afterwards, Zappa collapsed with a duodenal ulcer and had to return to the bosom of his family. Though the illness was painful, he liked its name and his album Lumpy Gravy has a track called ‘Duodenum’.
Which gives me an excellent excuse to re-post one of my favorite Zappadan finds from 2009: The Persuasions performing “Duodenum.” The way I see it, Barry, this should be a very dynamite show.
As reported in Barry Miles’ Zappa: A Biography, one of the great influences of the young Frank Zappa was Johnny “Guitar” Watson.
He looked forward to lunchtime, because just down the street from the school was a coffee-shop where he would eat a bowl of chili (his favourite meal) with crackers and a bottle of Royal Crown Cola while listening to the jukebox. Opal and Chester who owned the place agreed to ask the jukebox supplier to include some of Frank’s favourite records, and so, as he told Nigel Leigh for a BBC TV documentary, ‘I had the ability to eat good chili and listen to “Three Hours Past Midnight” by Johnny “Guitar” Watson for most of my junior and senior years.
Watson’s solo on the record was absorbed deep into Zappa’s consciousness and several of his phrases occurred in Frank’s later work. ‘One of the things I admired about him was his tone, this wiry, kind of nasty, aggressive and penetrating tone, and another was the fact that the thing that he would play would often come out as rhythmic outbursts over the constant beat of the accompaniment…It seemed to me that was the correct way to approach it, because it was like talking or singing over a background. There was a speech influence to the rhythm.’ Watson often plays ahead of the beat and takes great risks to resolve a break. He has a hard, unforgiving tone. It is easy to see his influence on Zappa’s guitar style.
There were a lot of bands in San Diego and Frank saw as many as he could. Zappa: ‘It’s almost impossible to convey what the R&B scene was like in San Diego. There were gangs there, and every gang was loyal to a particular band. They weren’t called groups, they were called bands. They were mostly Negro and Mexican, and they tried to get the baddest sound they could. It was very important not to sound like jazz. And there was a real oral tradition to the music. Everybody played the same songs, with the same arrangements, and they tried to play as close as possible to the original record. But the thing was that half the time the guys in the band had never heard the record—somebody’s older brother would own the record, and the kid would memorize it and teach it to somebody else. At one point all the bands in San Diego were playing the same arrangement of ‘Okey Dokey Stomp’ by Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. The amazing thing was that it sounded almost note for note like the record.
I wonder if that’s how these cats learned how to play it: